Eight universities will be inspected as part of a Government move to “drive up” standards in higher education, it was announced on Thursday.
The investigations, launched on Thursday and focused on business courses, are the first in a series of “boots on the ground” inspections announced by Higher and Further Education Minister Michelle Donelan earlier this year.
The inspections will look at teaching quality at institutions, as well as whether they are failing to deliver face to face teaching or address high dropout rates.
The inspection of eight business and management courses will include an examination of “whether poor quality online learning has replaced face to face teaching to the detriment of students’ academic experience”, the Office for Students said.
They will also look at whether courses meet the OfS’s new quality standards which came into effect in May.
Inspectors will also consider the effectiveness of course teaching and students’ contact hours, as well as if students receive “sufficient” learning resources and academic support, with experienced academics leading the inspections.
The OfS is not naming the universities and colleges under investigation but expects to publish further details later on.
Ms Donelan told the PA news agency that the OfS had chosen the eight institutions on the basis of a “range of factors” including student feedback from the notification process and the National Student Survey, as well as outcome data, dropout rates and other intelligence which revealed “a great variation in that subject provision”.
She added that while student feedback was only one factor, areas explored “will include absolutely face to face provision and the quality of teaching, but also the wider support that is given in these subjects”.
The OfS will also look at grade inflation in its future inspections.
Ms Donelan said that of the eight providers, five had dropout rates of 40%.
“Quality has been a relentless focus of mine and I believe it’s so important because of its strong link with social mobility as well,” she said.
“If we don’t have courses across the board that are high quality, students will then start a course that they might not finish, that might not lead them to a graduate job, that won’t give them that outcome that they deserve when undertaking such an investment in their time and money.”
There will be more inspections in June and July but she added it was not that the Government wanted “X amount of investigations” but needed confidence in quality.
“Overall, we have some of the world’s very best provision and we are leading the way in a number of fields,” she said.
The Teaching Excellence Framework was also being revamped to “drive up quality within the sector” through a new “Requires Improvement” category.
“We’re also making sure that universities are much more transparent about their dropout rates and also their outcome data, so that students can make informed choices, but again that will change behaviour within the sector and drive up quality.”
Susan Lapworth, interim chief executive of the OfS, said: “We know that students have endured an exceptionally difficult time during the pandemic. While most courses have returned to normal, it is right for the OfS to consider whether some universities and colleges are selling students short.
“It is also right that we look at the quality of business and management courses more generally because around 400,000 students at OfS-registered providers study this subject every year and they are entitled to expect a high quality experience regardless of the provider they choose.
“The launch of these investigations signals a shift for the OfS to active regulation of quality in the higher education sector.
“As well as the direct impact on the courses under investigation, this work sends a clear message to all universities and colleges we regulate that they should ensure that all their courses are well taught, well resourced and provide students with a credible qualification that stands the test of time.
“Where that is the case, they should not be concerned about our regulation. Where it is not, we are ready to require improvement and to consider imposing sanctions.”